Austen enthusiast and Guardian columnist Mullan (English/Univ. College London; Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature, 2008, etc.) poses and answers 20 questions about Austen’s novels and her technique.
Not all the questions are “crucial,” but most are interesting. The author begins by wondering if Austen knew how good she was and quickly reveals his great admiration for her work. Then, off he sails toward his 20 islands, each of which he explores in conventional fashion: introductory paragraph(s) followed by paragraphs of literary proof (quotations, incidents), virtually all featuring a topic sentence. Conventions aside, Mullan returns from his voyages with some “novel” insights. He notes the significance of the ages of her characters (the women in the books are invariably younger than their screen counterparts), the rarity of a woman’s using a man’s first name in conversation, the rarity of death, the seductions of the seaside, the significance of weather, and why some characters talk a lot and some are silent altogether. We learn about games characters play (Austen herself liked cards) in a chapter Mullan slyly follows with one about sex (yes, there is some in Austen; no, it’s not very obvious). He examines the relevance of money (who talks about it and why?) and the significance of blunders (Emma is the queen of them, as he notes) and illness and even blushing. “Austen requires her readers,” writes Mullan, “to be interpreters of blushes.” Near the end (as in an Austen novel), marriage becomes a focus, and the last two chapters deal with Austen as a technical innovator. Mullan notes how she rarely intrudes in the narration (unlike Thackeray and Trollope) and how she pioneered the “free indirect style.”
A box of 20 literary chocolates for Austen fans to savor.